What to do about Negative Thinking When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work.

“I’m not good enough.” “No one listens to me”. “I should be able to do this”. “There’s something wrong with me”. “Other people just don’t get me”. “I just can’t do this”. “I’ll never get married.” “I should just…” “Why can’t I be happy like other people?”. “I don’t think things are ever going to change”.

These are some common thoughts people have when they are feeling bad about themselves, other people or the future. Most people agree that there is a connection between their thoughts and feelings. You feel bad and you end up thinking more negatively than when you’re feeling good. Negative thinking can lead you to feel worse or do things that make the situation worse. So, knowing that, you try to get yourself to think more positively in the hopes that it will improve your mood. Most people tell me that it helps them sometimes, but not always, and surprisingly, sometimes it actually makes it worse.

Have you ever had the experience of someone approaching you and saying, “hey there! smile!!”? or “Hey! Turn that frown upside down!”? Did that ever make you feel better? Most people report that comments like that make them feel annoyed, irritated and even worse than before. In their efforts to cheer people up, these people may not realize that they are actually criticizing other’s facial expressions and being insensitive to their feelings, leaving them in a worse mood than before. When trying to get yourself to think positively to change your mood, you don’t want to make the same mistake.

If you’re in a bad mood and trying to think positively isn’t working, try these things instead.  Give yourself permission to be in a bad mood. Who said you need to be happy all the time? It’s not fun, but bad moods happen, and letting yourself be upset can be a great way to send the message to yourself and other people that you don’t have to be perfect, happy and “on” 100% of the time. Some people will probably have some trouble accepting this, but hey, as long as you are not doing anything to hurt other people verbally or physically, they will survive and be just fine.

Make a List.

Make a list of all of the good reasons that you have to be annoyed, irritated, sad, disappointed, tired or anxious. Try to be generous to yourself without distorting the facts. Notice that you have reasons for feeling the way you do. Keep listing factual reasons until you feel like it makes sense that you would be feeling this way. It’s important that you stick as close to verifiable facts as possible. For example, “I forgot to return several calls at work and my report had a mistake in it”, is more factual than “I suck at my job”. It’s also important that you write these things down. Writing them down helps keep things clear in your head and keeps thoughts from too quickly spiraling into destruction and just more negative thinking.

Put it in Perspective.

Make a second list. You could call this list, “On the Other Hand” and it should include reasons why you might start feeling better or why you don’t have to feel completely horrible. For example, “On the other hand, I turned in a corrected version of the report and I’ve done a lot of good things for this company”, or “I’ve been really tired lately, but I’ll have a chance to relax tonight” or “Lots of other people make mistakes too”. These items should also be facts. Be careful to avoid invalidating (or arguing with) the facts from the first list. The purpose of the second list isn’t to argue with facts or to tell yourself that you are wrong for feeling bad. It’s to put everything on the first list into perspective.


You might find that there are some big assumptions you are making that are contributing to your negative mood. These assumptions might be spot on, giving you every right to feel bad, but they could also be slightly off or way off, meaning you’re feeling bad and you don’t even have to. If you notice any assumptions (negative thoughts that are not verifiable facts), see if you can conduct an investigation like you would if you were a detective or scientist to try to find out if the assumptions are true. For example, “My boss thinks I am a poor employee” might be a fact, but you might want to gather more information to see if this assumption is a fact or not. Asking questions, observing people’s actions and accessing records are all great ways of collecting new information.

Be constructive.

Stay with the facts and think about what you can do to make things better. Being constructive can be different than being positive. An overly positive thinker might have a thought like, “Oops, I didn’t return that phone call and I turned in a report with a mistake, but I have so much to be thankful and I’m great at my job, so it’s ok”. Someone thinking constructively might say, “Uh oh, I forgot to return some calls, and that report had a mistake in it. I’d really like to do better, but I’ve been so tired lately. I’ll have a chance to relax tonight and I’ll try getting more rest and setting up a better routine for returning calls and see if that helps.

These suggestions are based in ideas from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and just scratch the surface of the tools that are available for better coping with emotions and mood. If you like this perspective, you might consider working with a CBT therapist for more support in working toward better coping with moods and emotions.

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